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Tuesday
Mar202018

Film Reviews

By Peter Chattaway

A Wrinkle in Time

IN THE MONTHS leading up to the release of A Wrinkle in Time, the Disney studio made a token effort to reach out to Christian audiences and, on the surface at least, it made sense: the film is based on a classic children’s sci-fi novel by the late Madeleine L’Engle, who often spoke at length about the way her works were informed by her Episcopalian faith.

It’s a little strange, then, to actually watch director Ava DuVernay’s disappointingly clunky movie and to see how it expunges everything from the book that is specifically Christian.

For example, the three supernatural beings who guide the story’s protagonists on a journey around the cosmos are no longer guardian angels who sing God’s praises, but little more than generic fairy godmothers. The Bible quotations that motivated the action in the book are nowhere to be heard in the film. And when the supernatural beings rattle off a list of people who have made the world a better place, they no longer mention Jesus, though they do quote Buddha and they speak rather highly of Gandhi and Oskar Schindler.

It’s a little like making a Narnia movie in which Aslan is just another talking beast.

And that isn’t the movie’s only problem.

L’Engle’s book deals with some pretty abstract concepts, such as two-dimensional worlds and the cosmic embodiment of evil, which are great for teasing the imagination on the page but don’t translate so well to a visual, dramatic medium like film. And where the book encouraged a deeper form of cultural literacy, by quoting French and Greek philosophers and the like, the film frequently opts for quotes from rap artists and recent hit musicals.

The story concerns Meg Muray (Storm Reid) and her precociously smart kid brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Their father (Chris Pine) went missing a few years ago while working on a way to teleport to other places using just his mind, and now Meg’s classmates taunt her with the idea that her father just wanted to get away from her.

Then Meg and Charles Wallace get a series of visits from Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey who first appears as a comically gigantic figure, taller than a house), three ancient beings who want to help Meg find – and, ultimately, rescue – her father, who is stranded on a planet held captive by evil.

What follows is a series of journeys to a variety of worlds, but instead of finding any sort of narrative flow between these scenes, DuVernay lurches from one set piece to another in a way that lacks coherence and ultimately tries the audience’s patience.

It also doesn’t help that while the visual effects frequently try to look rather epic, the story that strings them together is remarkably thin on characterization and world-building.

There are a few bright spots. Reid and Pine are particularly good in their roles, and once in awhile the visual whimsy hits on something that works; I particularly liked the scene in which Meg seems to be walking up the blueprints for a set of invisible stairs.

Most importantly, the film doesn’t entirely lose the book’s emphasis on the power of love, which becomes an especially crucial point in the film’s climactic showdown.

But the film is also now full of bland, Oprah-esque messages about believing in yourself, being one with the universe, and having faith in who you are, which just feels very shallow – especially given how deeply rooted in the author’s faith the story used to be.

 

I Can Only Imagine

You wouldn’t know, just from listening to it, that the Christian radio hit “I Can Only Imagine” was inspired by the lead singer’s abusive childhood and his reconciliation with his father some years later. But that is the story that is told in the film that bears the song’s name.

The film begins in 1985, when Bart Millard (played by Brody Rose as a child, and by J. Michael Finley as an adult) is just a kid who likes to ride his bike and listen to bands like U2.

Bart and his mother both suffer at the hands of his father (Dennis Quaid), and Bart’s mother sends her son to camp so that he won’t have to be there when she leaves their home.

Eventually Bart grows up and moves out too. He tries to make a living as the lead singer of a band called MercyMe – but then he puts his career on hold to settle things with his father, who turns out to have had a change of heart while Bart was away.

The film has been billed as a story about how, if the gospel could change Bart’s father, it can change anyone, but the father’s conversion basically happens offscreen and isn’t the real focus here. The real story is how Bart learns to forgive his father and to mend some of his other relationships, which were damaged by the harm his father had done to him.

The film benefits greatly from Quaid’s performance, which finds the humanity behind the father’s dangerous outbursts, and from Bart’s sincere enjoyment of music in its many forms, from hymns to pop songs and Rodgers & Hammerstein. And the story is sufficiently moving even if, like me, you had never heard the song before seeing the film.

 

Samson

Some Christians like to complain whenever a Hollywood movie isn’t “biblically accurate,” but if there’s one thing a movie like Samson proves, it’s that Christians are not immune to changing the Bible when it suits our own dramatic purposes.

The biblical Samson was hot-tempered, promiscuous, arguably murderous and prone to going on one-man rampages instead of leading his people the way a judge should. But the film – produced by Pure Flix, the studio behind God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ – sanitizes his story so that Samson can come across as a morally upright figure who inspires his people, Braveheart-style, to rise up against their oppressors after he’s gone.

Thus, the Samson of this film doesn’t use cruel innuendoes to accuse his wife of infidelity (Judges 14:18), he doesn’t slaughter 30 random men just to pay a debt (Judges 14:19) – instead he kills 30 soldiers and liberates some prisoners while he’s at it – and he’s shocked, shocked! when the inn he visits in Gaza turns out to be a brothel (cf. Judges 16:1).

Thankfully, there is some entertainment value here, starting with the opening scene in which Samson and his brother trade riddles while breaking into a Philistine storehouse; and Taylor James has the right mix of charisma and bravado as the film’s reluctant hero.

But the fake beards, some awkwardly staged scenes, and the extremely hammy acting by Jackson Rathbone in particular (as a villainous Philistine prince) make it difficult to accept this film as the historical action epic that it clearly wants to be.   TAP

 

Peter T. Chattaway is a Vancouver-based film critic whose blog you can follow at www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat.

 

 

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